Mikkel Kessler came into Saturday's fight with Andre Ward the favorite in the fight and in the Super Six World Boxing Classic, and in the minds of many, he was still the world's best super middleweight.
I was one of those that regarded the Dane as the best at 168, and felt he'd rightfully held that spot since Joe Calzaghe moved to 175 pounds in 2008. He simply moved up from No. 2; after all, his only loss had come to Calzaghe, and he gave Joe Cool as tough a fight as just about anyone ever did.
Competitive though it was, that fight was a clear Calzaghe win. On Saturday, it was a clear Ward victory.
Kessler (42-2, 32 KO) is one of the world's best basic fighters still. As we discussed before the fight with Ward, there is nothing tricky at all about Mikkel Kessler. He's straight ahead, lives off of a powerful jab, and has a good right hand that can come behind it.
Calzaghe and Ward took major advantage of the simple rhythm of Kessler's style. For Calzaghe, it came when he started clearly outpacing him in the second half of the fight. Early, Kessler was right there with Joe. As the fight wore on, Calzaghe simply took over, using his superior mobility and faster hands to snatch every bit of the momentum. He frustrated Kessler, who never made an adjustment. You could watch Kessler's facial expressions and body language change the more in control Calzaghe became.
The same thing happened again on Saturday, only it happened right away. After the Calzaghe fight, Kessler remarked that Calzaghe "ruins your boxing" with his style.
In a press release, Kessler this time said, "He was very fast and very good. He ruined my style."
"It was not my day. Now I will go home, watch the tape and then bounce back stronger than ever," he added.
Apparently, speed, quick hands, and maybe a little rough-housing ruins Mikkel Kessler. Kessler is apparently so basic that he simply cannot adjust. Maybe that's a training or corner issue as much as it is a boxing issue for Kessler. Whatever it is, a few things are now clear about Mikkel Kessler.
- Speed kills. Specifically, it kills him.
- He doesn't deal well with being disrupted. Ward used some holding and got his head and elbows involved. It is what it is -- it's a part of the game, legal or not, and if a referee isn't calling it, you have to find a way to neutralize it. That may not seem fair, but what is?
- Again: He can't adjust. He's just shown no ability to change and turn the tide of a fight that isn't going his way.
- He doesn't like fighting inside. He's not good at it, isn't comfortable in close, and gets beaten up.
It's also possible that Kessler's history of hand, back and elbow injuries are getting to him. I'd buy that more now than I ever have before. It's been something speculated about, but there never seemed to be any real evidence that the injuries were giving him overwhelming trouble on fight night.
And it's not that the injuries would necessarily be giving him great grief so much as just slowing him down, giving him trouble against faster men. As great as Calzaghe was, Joe didn't lay waste to Kessler the way Ward did. Ward made Kessler look incredibly slow, tentative and trigger-shy. He may be slowing down drastically early in his career after the many nagging injuries.
Last Saturday, Mikkel seemed to alternate between two mental states against Ward. One that was vacant, a bit bewildered, and knowingly outclassed on this night. The other, you could almost see his gears turning, trying to figure out a way into the fight, and coming up with no good answers.
Mikkel Kessler remains a very good fighter, but with a lot more questions than he had on Saturday. Has he been exposed? Maybe. The Froch fight will tell us a few things. Froch isn't nearly as mobile or fast as Calzaghe or Ward, nor is he as crafty. Froch is rather slow-handed, but he's powerful and has a ton of heart. Kessler may be able to win a straight-up boxing contest with Froch. He's probably the quicker man, uses his jab very well, and is more technically sound than Froch.
But Froch will adjust if or when he's struggling. What if he begins to take the upper hand? Will we again see Kessler baffled, left entirely without a Plan B for the evening?
It's hard to ever count out a top-ranked fighter, especially one whose only losses are against the greatest fighter in a division's history and an Olympic gold medalist who may simply be breaking out big. And Kessler should not be counted out at all. A win over Froch, and he's got another world title and is right back in the mix for the tournament.
But if there is a blueprint on beating Mikkel Kessler, it's been drawn up by the draftsmen Calzaghe and Ward. Coming back stronger and better will require something more of Kessler, and we can't be certain he's really up for that. Better fighters than Mikkel Kessler have seen it come apart at what seemed a young age.